Fragments point to oldest skin boat yet found in Alaska

Mike Dunham
Anchorage Museum researcher Jenya Anichenko looks over some of the umiak pieces discovered in the Birnirk collection. Last year they were returned to Alaska and recently dated at 1,000 years old, the oldest skin boat assembly known in the Circumpolar North. Photo: University of Alaska Museum of the North
One of the umiak pieces from near Barrow, recently determined to be 1,000 years old, is embellished with three oval ivory inlays held in place with small ivory pins. Researcher Jenya Anichenko says they were probably decorative or had ritual significance. Photo: University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Pieces of an ancient umiak, part of a trove recovered in an archaeological dig near Barrow around 70 years ago, have just been identified as having come from the oldest skin boat assembly yet found in the circumpolar arctic.

The University of Alaska Museum of the North announced Tuesday that Jenya Anichenko, a researcher with the Anchorage Museum, had determined several fragments from the Birnirk site as belonging to the same boat. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the fragments are 1,000 years old. Anichenko said that was 400 years older than the previously known examples.

The artifacts from the Birnirk site, owned by the U.S. Navy, were housed at Harvard Peabody Museum until last year, when they were returned to Alaska. They are now in the custody of the Museum of the North in Fairbanks.

Some 30 wooden fragments include keel, rib and bottom cross pieces. They are mostly wood, with some small pieces of baleen lashing and oval ivory inlays. The function of the inlays is not known, but Anichenko suspects they were most likely decorations, perhaps with "ritual significance."

The announcement quoted Scott Shirar, the museum's research archaeologist, saying, "The level of preservation at the Birnirk site was tremendous. Many of the organic artifacts usually not preserved in the archaeological record were preserved at this site."

Now that the collection is in Alaska, he expects more research on the items found at Birnirk to produce new discoveries.


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.